Students of Mexico's largest public university went on strike Thursday in the first show of force by students here in almost two decades. The outcome of the strike may affect not only the quality of education at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) but also the selection of Mexico's next president, as well as the ability of the current administration to keep a lid on social unrest after four years of severe economic austerity.
How the strike is settled could affect the 1988 presidential election. Education Minister Miguel Gonz'alez Avelar and Interior Minister Manuel Bartlett are viewed as being two of the four men under consideration for the ruling party's candidate. Either could be dropped if the dispute gets out of hand or is mishandled.
Politicians, diplomats, and UNAM professors say that politicians supporting a particular person for the presidency could be manipulating the student movement in hopes of enhancing their candidate's chances.
The students struck after months of fruitless negotiation with UNAM administrators over a reforms package intended to raise the academic level of the institution. University rector Jorge Caroizo says the reforms, including an end to open admissions and the institution of standardized exams, are necessary to rescue the university from a dramatic decline in academic quality.
The National Autonomous University of Mexico, with 320,000 students in the university and associated high schools, has educated Mexico's elite, including President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado and many in his Cabinet. But now the political elite tend to send their children abroad or to private universities.
The statistics explain why. Only 7.6 percent of the students who enter pass the admissions exam. Once enrolled, only half finish. Teachers are ill prepared. Only 30 percent have postgraduate degrees, and 10 percent have no degree. The average monthly salary is $245, so most teach part-time and have other jobs.
The students say they had little input into the reforms proposed in September by the university. Their concern is that the reforms will keep the poor out. Students pay very little tuition - some just 20 cents a year.
A meeting is scheduled for Feb. 10 to discuss the reforms. The students have asked the university to repeal the reforms at that meeting.
The students hope to drum up general support. But memories of the 1968 government crackdown on student activism have tempered public involvement and student action.